Serious Offerings from the Folk Revival: The Wicker Man at Fifty

by Madeleine Jacob | December 25, 2023

Two snails writhe over one another, watched by a lord in a kilt reciting lines from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’. The local sweetshop sells cakes in the shape of naked women. A mother breastfeeds an infant in the ruins of a church—her outstretched palm cradles an egg. An empty rectangle marks the wall where the annual harvest festival photograph is meant to hang. An unoccupied schoolroom desk opens onto a miniature torture scene—a beetle is tied to a nail with a piece of thread, circling interminably. In the classroom, the blackboard displays crib notes: “the toad stone preserves the newly born from the weird woman, the hag stone preserves the people from nightmare.” In the pub, the locals sing a ballad about the landlord’s licentious daughter. She performs erotic initiations in the bedroom upstairs. If you haven’t heard of folk horror, 1973’s The Wicker Man will gladly initiate you.  

The film is set on a fictive Scottish island: Summerisle, accessible only by seaplane. We follow Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a devoutly religious policeman (and middle-aged virgin) from the mainland. He has received an anonymous letter which claims that a young girl has gone missing. Outraged at the island´s rubbishing of Christian tradition, Howie looks on in horror as he watches its inhabitants publicly copulate late at night in the desecrated churchyard. Soon, it’s Howie’s turn to take part in heathen revelry: the landlord’s daughter (Britt Ekland) gyrates her naked body to drum enthusiastically on his bedroom walls, inviting him to her adjoining bedroom. Drumming on the door of our contemporary concerns with folk culture, The Wicker Man seeks to tell us the truth about the origins of folk revivalism in Britain—if there can be said to be any origins at all for the age-old practice of dredging up half-truths from our green and pleasant history. 

The Wicker Man is celebrating its feted 50th anniversary with a 4K re-release this year. Its genre-founding potency is popularly believed to be shared with two other films: Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1973). These pulp films have since been christened as a foundational ‘unholy trinity’. It was only in 2010 that actor and writer Mark Gatiss resurrected ‘folk horror’ as a mainstream critical term, although the genre had been discussed occasionally since the early 1970s. ‘70s manifestations of British folk horror appear in children’s literature and TV as well as B-movies, public information films, and comic strips. The past 15 years have seen a revival in the production of folk-infused feature films, partially the products of folk practitioners who grew up reading the folkloric children’s books of Alan Garner and M.R. James. While not necessarily always horrible, folk horror is traditional horror’s weird cousin. While traditional horror films often draw on folkloric accounts of the supernatural, urban myths, and rural legend, academic Adam Scovell underscores how folk horror has its own specific configuration of events, which he calls the “Folk Horror Chain”. As their narratives unfold, the ‘folk’ of folk horror films are subject to the landscape’s eerie effects: characters are physically isolated from contemporary objects and places, but also psychologically and ideologically distinct from the rationalist world. At the close of the folk horror fiction, you can expect a ritualistic act of violence, says Scovell. His schema may be critically limited—it overlooks the global variety of the folk horror tradition—but it reveals folk horror’s essential internal tensions: between community and outsider, modernity and tradition, the land and the folk. 

Folk’s associated rituals and settings claim to invoke the distant and often pre-Christian past. It offers us roles which are comfortably nostalgic and subversively anti-modern at once. Even at our most vulnerable—at sexual climax, for example—the folk will be there with the promise of tradition. In 2019’s folk-esque thriller Midsommar, the folk is present as a group of middle-aged women at the remote Swedish commune in which the film is set. They form a semi-circle about an American PhD student—supposed to be conducting research—as he fucks a girl from the commune. She has charmed him (literally) by spiking his lunches with menstrual blood and pubic hair. Sex itself is fundamental to the folk revival: the genre continually offers up naked pagan bodies beneath sturdy traditional folk dress. Folk horror has a taste for carnality, and often experiments with alternative accounts of sexual morality. Certainly, Midsommar seems to inherit some of its interest in non-Christian sexual and social practices from The Wicker Man’s loving couples. 

Despite folk horror’s extensive and diverse roots, the present-day seems to be an age of folk as a range of social and art practices, as well as an anthropological category. Folk music events like Deptford’s Folk of the Round Table share venues with the contemporary jazz scene. Postmodernist mimicry has been interested in folk icons for a while: Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem (2009) is set on St George’s Day and inflated with pseudo-folk tales, and Jeremy Deller’s travelling artwork Sacrilege (2012) recreates Stonehenge to scale as a bouncy castle. 

Yet ‘folk’ as a term is as woolly as an Icelandic lopapeysa. To discuss and be aware of ‘folk’ identifies how far we fall outside of those (often imagined) folk communities. To engage in folk ritual in the UK is often a reconstruction of a Victorian invention. The Wicker Man tells us such a tale—the island community’s catch-all paganism is revealed to have been planted and nurtured by a Victorian aristocrat. Sergeant Howie discovers the murderous climax of the community’s May Day celebrations in a library. Images of his horrified expression are crosscut with visuals of the text he is readingan account of May Day celebrations and their erstwhile link with druidic sacrifice. It’s a moment in the film where the island community’s ‘pagan’ rituals lose their aura of attractive authenticity: instead, they appear contrived—borrowed from the pages of a library book. Is this part of the film’s horror, that to deviate from social convention has no authentic tradition? That resistance to the status quo is always haphazard, marginal, and partially fictive? While folklore is certainly still operating in our cultural consciousness, esoteric rituals that happen today—at Glastonbury Tor and Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Eve, or even down Oxford’s Magdalen Street on May Day—are no more authentic or ‘British’ than any other religious or social practice, and they’re typically not very ancient at all. 

These attachments to hierarchy and order appear to be drawn from a tapestry of historical folkloric fabrications. St Gregory suggested that the early English Church adopt pre-Christian sacred spaces as worship places of their own, Edward III founded the Order of the Garter to re-enact ‘ancient’ practices of Arthurian chivalric knighthood, and 20th-century fascist groups adopted pagan iconography to lay claim on the ‘folk’. These examples testify that the customs and images which represent the folk are vulnerable to being imbued with meanings that favour hegemonic power. Such a delusional folk imaginary feeds, like any fiction, on its immediate contexts. In The Wicker Man, the islanders worship folk symbols with highly arbitrary meanings: Summerisle’s schoolteacher Miss Rose informs us that the maypole represents the penis, an understandable but perhaps limited interpretation of a polysemic ritual object. As their crops fail, the islanders seem to engage in folkloric rituals primarily as a means of securing agricultural fertility. To appropriate folklore and believe it will straightforwardly serve your own desires is to underestimate its tangled logic. The Wicker Man’s islanders orchestrate a sacrifice to stave off their hunger and poverty. Given that they have sacrificed a foolish virginal outsider, ‘the right kind of adult’, we might assume that come another failed harvest the only more effective offering would be their leader, Lord Summerisle, as Howie so chillingly points out at the climax of the film. 

50 years on, The Wicker Man’s final fifteen minutes are difficult to decipher, especially since the decline of 20th-century cul-de-sac curtain-twitching about social mores. Despite their invented origins, Summerisle’s May Day festivities are so enthusiastically practiced that they seem inviting. A crossdressing Christopher Lee skips towards a giant wooden effigy. The island children wear animal masks which stifle their laughter as they observe Howie frantically search for a lost little girl. The film’s writer Anthony Schaffer has borrowed folk figures from different traditions in the UK and Ireland: the islanders dress variously in costumes which include the Morris-dancing Hobby Horse and the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’ from Gaelic folklore. Pitifully, Sergeant Howie attends the procession in disguise as Punch the Fool, dancing weakly but looking devious in his grinning mask. Howie has remained a virgin, but have we, as an audience, resisted the aesthetic and intellectual seductions of the folk? 

It’s difficult not to insert our own fantasies about communal welfare and sexual honesty into this narrative of feudal social relations. The Wicker Man warns us that the folk-esque is implicated in all-too-familiar social politics, no matter how otherworldly it appears. Perhaps for cinephiles in the 1970s, The Wicker Man and its sister films skewed village life and amplified the recognisable comforts of the rural and local to horrifying effect (think The League of Gentlemen: “this is a local shop for local people”). In a postmodern, post-Thatcher, and largely secular Britain, maybe folk revivalism is seductive because it’s the only ideologically flexible communal practice on offer. It also provides us with ways of participating in history—particularly the history of the land—when recognisable climates are disappearing, and we feel ourselves teeter precipitously at the edges of environmental collapse. At its best, folk revivalism is honest about its inauthenticity, thereby letting us repurpose the already repurposed material of folklore for novel communal and non-hierarchical practices. 

However, there’s always the danger that folk iconography can be appropriated to justify archaisms and conservatisms. 50 years after Lord Summerisle and the folk of The Wicker Man made their offering, the Foliate Head of the Green Man—a folkloric representation of renewal—smiled benignly from King Charles’ coronation invitation.

Words by Madeleine Jacob. Art by Sarah Tseung.